My city of ruins: New Orleans and Habitat

To be with 27 sisters and brothers from the Berkshires last week in New Orleans was another sign of God’s grace in a broken world. When we left Hartford at 6:00 am ten days ago, we were young and old, male and female, rich and poor and in-between, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, Christian and Jew, skilled and klutzy, committed to a week of building houses together in one of our nation’s dearest and most wounded cities. To be sure, there were friendships among us – some had travelled and worked together before – but as a group we began this mission as a collection of individuals but ended as a team – and that was the blessing for me.

Coming together across division and difference is not something we Americans do very well anymore. There was a time when Americans pulled together: think “the Greatest Generation,” the Civil Rights movement or even “Woodstock Nation.” Today, however, we value our “space” more than community. We celebrate our individuality as something sacred. And God knows we cop an attitude – or worse – when another challenges our bias or privilege. How did the President put it? “Either you are with us or against us!”

Thankfully Habitat for Humanity has an alternative vision for how life might be lived and we were given a chance to embrace that alternative last week. You may know that Habitat grew out of the work of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Community in Americus, Georgia in the late 60s. Jordan, a renegade Baptist preacher, had organized a racially integrated community in the heart of the segregated South after WWII to be a parable of hope. In time, a local business man, Millard Fuller, caught a glimpse of Christ’s alternative world at Koinonia and gave up his million dollar publishing work to advance the housing ministry we now call Habitat for Humanity.

Sometimes it is minimized – or even forgotten – but two key Christian principles guide this ministry: the economics of Jesus and the absolute integrity of the body of Christ. Jordan used to describe the “economics of Jesus” like this: everything in life is a gift –including wealth – so the key to living according to God’s will is to share our gifts with one another as freely as God has shared with us. When it came to building houses that meant gathering money from the wealthy so that it could be lent without interest to those in need; this loan would still be paid back, of course, but would go into a revolving fund to be lent out again so that both rich and poor would help one another build a more just society one house at a time.

Two scripture references are essential: Luke 4 – in which Jesus reclaims the Jubilee goals of ancient Israel – and Matthew 25 – where Christ makes it clear that we meet God in our treatment of the least of our sisters and brothers. And intimately connected to these two scriptural insights are the words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 12 concerning the Body of Christ: this metaphor reminds us that as a part of a body we hold different gifts and abilities – indeed there are a variety of strengths and weaknesses as well as unique and very different organs – but all work together for the common good. “For just as the body is one and has many members… so, too, the body of Christ. If the foot would say, ‘because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part… Indeed, God has so arranged the body… so that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one suffers, all suffer with it; if one member is honored, we all rejoice together.”

Slowly – and imperfectly and not without some hurt feelings – as we opened ourselves to the Habitat ethos, we found ourselves living into the truths of these texts: the unskilled learned from the experienced, women builders were just as valued as men, the weak found important ways to help the strong and those on top found opportunities to share compassion. What’s more, the impatient among us had plenty of chances to get over themselves, too, so that by week’s end – in concert with our sisters and brothers from New Orleans who will one day live in these new homes – hope took root in the 9th Ward. Dignity and justice were restored for four families in a wasteland, and, those of us from the North found we had given some of our heart and soul to the South. We experienced the blessing Jesus promised when we discern God within and among the least of our sisters and brothers. Beyond race and class, we became one as the body of Christ.

I don’t think we should be shy with these words: they are transformative, counter cultural and at the heart of this ministry. One of my favorite popular musicians, Bruce Springsteen, used them in a song that continues to move Americans: “My City of Ruins” When he debuted it shortly after September 11th it spoke to the world – and it continues to hold meaning for us in New Orleans today. (Check out the video at: As Bruce leads, the band responds – it is classic African-American gospel music in a contemporary integrated setting – so that what is old becomes new and each individual creates something as an essential part of the whole. When we left New Orleans, our Berkshire team was like Springsteen’s song – and it was a taste of what could be if we were open to God’s invitation.

For another take on the integrity of body of Christ moving beyond limits, genres, class, race and all the rest, check out what U2 and Green Day did as a way to raise funds for rebuilding New Olreans at: Come on, rise up!


rbarenblat said…
To be sure, there were friendships among us – some had travelled and worked together before – but as a group we began this mission as a collection of individuals but ended as a team – and that was the blessing for me.

This is tremendously moving to me. I would say the same about the group who just yesterday completed a 2-year liturgical leadership training program, and that sense of community is something I so deeply cherish.

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